The ecumenical agreement may become the force that keeps religious healthcare systems competitive in coming years.
The term "ecumenical" is typically used when talking about ways to unify Christian churches. In healthcare, ecumenical agreements will become a way for church-based systems of all kinds to unite and preserve their religious form.
With last year's increased emphasis by Roman Catholic and other religious systems on staying away from investor-owned chains, these unions may be their best option.
One thing's for sure: Investor-owned chains will continue knocking on the door of religious systems.
Last year, Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. attempted a number of creative deals, succeeding at some and failing at others.
In Atlanta, the Baptists backed out on Columbia. In Cleveland, the Catholics did everything they could to keep Columbia out, ultimately without success. And in San Antonio, the Methodists became Columbia's religious partnering poster child.
Columbia used its 50-50 partnership with Southwest Texas Methodist Hospital in San Antonio as a model that set the stage for a deal with the Cleveland-based Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine Health System. That deal drew the ire of the Catholic Health Association and bishops across the country before the Vatican sided with Catholic leaders in Cleveland and approved the deal.
To thwart similar deals, religious groups like the CHA and St. Paul, Minn.-based InterHealth, which represents predominantly Protestant healthcare hospitals and systems, will push their own models as alternatives.
For example, proponents of not-for-profit religious healthcare will point to the Chicago metropolitan area's Advocate Health Care, which got off the ground in 1995 after a seven-year gap between initial attempts to merge EHS Health Care and Lutheran General HealthSystem. In the 1987 attempt, EHS' sponsor, the United Church of Christ, feared the deal would threaten EHS' identity if it merged with Lutheran, sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Now, the eight-hospital Advocate system is a major competitor in the Chicago healthcare market.
Many Catholic systems have similar fears when considering partnerships with other religious systems, or even with other Catholic organizations. A major Catholic merger to watch is the $4 billion, three-way marriage of Catholic Health Corp., Omaha, Neb.; Sisters of Charity Health Care Systems, Cincinnati; and Franciscan Health System, Aston, Pa., set for completion early this year.